Rosh HaShanah Morning 5776 – A Call To The Covenant

Ever since I was a young boy, I was enthralled with the shofar.  I remember fidgeting through services, until that moment when the Ba’al Tekiah, the shofar sounder stood in the middle of the bima and then I stood rock solid still while those distinctive sounds echoed throughout the sanctuary.  The sound of the shofar stirred something inside, even in the soul of a little boy.

After learning French Horn in 8th grade, I asked the rabbi if I could be the Ba’al Tekia.  He listened to me play, and then gave me a large shofar to practice with.  Thanks, I said, but I have a question:  “can you strap this thing to my bicycle?”

I was our congregation’s ba’al tekiah for many years.  I remember the butterflies in my stomach churning as I stood preparing to hear the calls, licking my lips to keep them moist. At a time when I was unsure of my feelings for Judaism and our synagogue, the shofar was the root that kept calling me back.

When I got to college, I brought my shofar with me, and got asked to sound the shofar that first semester at school.  That shofar got me involved in Jewish life on campus, and in many ways, it was the sound of the shofar that drew me to Jewish life and ultimately to my rabbinate.

There is something about the sound of the shofar.  Hearing that sound is the primary obligation we are asked to fulfill for Rosh HaShanah, and it’s the one I think deep down we look forward to the most.

The shofar calls out to us with alarm:  “Awake you slumberers from your sleep! Examine your deeds, turn away from the silliness of the times and do not waste your years on foolishness and emptiness. Look to your souls and improve your ways and mistakes.”

But the shofar does more than wake us up.  It calls us to turn around and return.  Just as it called to me as a boy, the shofar calls us to return.  It says: Return to the root of your being. Return to the wellspring of your identity.  Return to your people, and the covenant that defines us and binds us together as Jews.

Jewish tradition calls marriage Kiddushin, holy things, because the establishment of a household and the commitment to a covenant are the most holy acts a person can perform.

The Jewish people are a household of sorts.  We descend from the household created by Abraham and Sarah.  But their household was transformed when they entered into a covenant with the Holy One.  In addition to their responsibilities to each other, they now bore responsibilities to God as well.

But just as Abraham and Sarah brought God into their household when they began the journey of our people, so too did we as a nation invite God into our collective household.  Having liberated us from slavery in Egypt, God brought us to a mountain in the wilderness to forge with us a covenant.  It was a covenant that demanded we build a society of based on sacred relationships with each other and a sacred relationship with the Divine, a covenant that demanded we love ourselves, that we love each other, and that we love God with all our heart, soul, and might.

As in any relationship, those bonds of connection fray and tear when we hurt one another. And this season asks us to think about how we respond when our mistakes and misdeeds loosen the bonds that weave us together.

I recently read an article by noted scholar Dr. Louis Newman[1] in which he asks if there is an empirical moral obligation to forgive.  Let’s say I do something, perhaps inadvertently, that hurts you.  The wrong I have done creates a moral debt that fractures our relationship.  Then we each have a choice.  I can seek to heal that fracture by resolving that debt, by making amends, apologizing, and seeking your forgiveness.  You can accept my contrition and relinquish your resentment, forgiving me and the moral debt I owe you.  Or … either of us can walk away.

But as Jews we are forbidden to walk away. In the 12th century Maimonides wrote that if we hurt or trespass against someone, it is our obligation to make restitution and to seek forgiveness.  If the other person refuses to grant forgiveness, we must return with a group of three people and ask again.  If the other still refuses, then we must return a second or a third time. But if the person then still will not grant forgiveness, then we are cleared of our responsibility; it is the other person who becomes guilty of the sin.  Our tradition teaches that we have a fundamental moral obligation not only to seek forgiveness but also to grant forgiveness.[2]

As Jews, we don’t get to opt out of our relationship with each other.  The covenant demands that we never give up on that relationship, and that we do what it takes to heal our fractures.  Our tradition teaches that it is in the web of that relationship that we draw nearer not simply to each other but more importantly to God, and if we separate from each other and disengage, ultimately we lose everything that matters.

Two thousand years ago, the oppression of the Roman empire was proving too difficult to bear, and our people was divided against itself in choosing how to respond.  The elite establishment believed in cooperating with the Roman government in order to avoid conflict.  The Zealots believed that the people of Judea should rise up against the Romans in revolt.  The differences were nasty and divisive, and led ultimately to our national defeat and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Years later, the rabbis in the Talmud taught “The first Temple was destroyed because of the [three cardinal] sins of idolatry, harlotry, and murder.  The second fell because … of Sinat Chinam, senseless hatred, and this teaches us that senseless hatred is a sin that weighs as heavily as idolatry, harlotry, and murder.”[3]

The history of our people is one of divisions and schisms, punctuated with senseless hatred. Sinat Chinam – senseless hatred is the enemy of our covenant.  It is the toxin that poisons our relationships and dissolves the bonds that make us one.

In 1920, Jewish settlers in Palestine organized a defensive militia called the Haganah to defend Jewish settlements from attacks by armed Arab groups.  By 1931, a second group spun off that was called Irgun Bet, or second division, later just called the Irgun.  The chief difference between the groups was that the Haganah believed in a policy of Havlagah – restraint, while the Irgun urged retaliation for Arab terror attacks on Jews.  The Haganah was loyal to the Labor Zionists, led by David Ben Gurion, while the Irgun was loyal to the Revisionists, led by Menachem Begin.[4]

For years, the two factions profoundly disagreed as to how best to defend the Jews of Palestine.  Begin believed the British had essentially declared war on the Jews by barring entry to Palestine for Jews fleeing the Holocaust.  The Irgun conducted a campaign of retaliatory attacks against the British, most notably the famous attack on the King David hotel that killed nearly 100 people.  Ben Gurion however believed that the violent provocations employed by the Irgun made Jews not only vulnerable to Arab attacks, but to British reprisals.[5]

When Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, as Israel’s new Prime Minister Ben Gurion ordered that for the new state to survive the existential threat posed by its Arab neighbors, the fighting forces had to come together as one army.

On June 11, 1948, less than a month after the creation of the State of Israel, a landing tank ship named the Altalena set sail from France for the newly created Jewish state.  The ship carried hundreds of volunteer fighters trained by the Irgun, and more than 150 million francs worth of French weaponry and military materiel.

The arms and weapons on board would prove vital to the defense of the Jewish state in the face of the coming Arab attack.  But Ben Gurion believed those same arms would provide for the retrenchment of the Irgun as a separate Jewish militia, and that was something he refused to accept.

When Irgun volunteers began to unload the Altalena’s cargo at Kfar Vitkin in northern Israel, Ben Gurion ordered the Haganah to fire on the ship.  Begin himself was aboard the Altalena, and the ship began to head toward Tel Aviv.  As the ship landed just yards off the crowded Tel Aviv shore, gunfire erupted and a mortar set fire to the Altalena.  The heat of the fire caused the munitions on board to begin to explode and eventually, Begin and the crew had to abandon ship.

Sixteen Irgun fighters were killed in the confrontation, along with three IDF soldiers.  But the most amazing thing came in the form of Begin’s response.  On the Irgun radio channel that night, Begin said:  “Raise not your hand against your brother… Not even today.  We shall continue to love Israel, the good and the bad, the misled and the mistaken.  We shall continue to love Israel and to fight for it.”  Later in life, Begin would write: “After my death, I hope that I will be remembered, above all, as someone who prevented civil war.”

How difficult must it have been for Ben Gurion to give the order, in the shadow of the Holocaust and on the precipice of war, for the Haganah to fire on Jewish soldiers aboard a desperately needed Jewish supply ship?  How difficult must it have been for Begin to order his troops to stand down and not retaliate?  But both men came to realize a truth that we today need not to forget: that we can only meet the existential threats we face as a people when we remember our covenant with each other and sacrifice whatever is necessary to come together as one.

For many years, America and Israel’s most vocal enemy in the world is the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Iran refers to the United States as “the Great Satan” and repeatedly calls for the destruction of the State of Israel, most recently last week when Iran’s Supreme Leader declared that Israel will not exist in 25 years.  We have watched with fear and deep-seated concern as Iran over the past two decades has worked to build a nuclear infrastructure despite crushing international sanctions and covert operations to thwart their ambitions.

We learned last week that the congress will not prevent the so called “deal” with Iran from going through.  Many people I respect support the deal because they think despite its weaknesses and flaws, it’s better than no deal at all, and while it fails to address so many of our concerns, it certainly is a step in the right direction.

Others whom I respect reject the deal because they believe that whatever benefits the deal achieves are far outweighed by the deal’s long-term cost. It legitimates the Iranian regime as a nuclear threshold state, it eventually removes the arms embargo that keeps Iran from developing the full conventional threat it might amass, it relieves the sanctions that have created havoc with the Iranian economy, and restores billions of dollars in frozen assets.  Iran which possesses the fourth largest proven oil reserves in the world sees a failed Shi’a state to its west, with the fifth largest proven oil reserves in the world.  To the west of Iraq is Syria, whose murderous and nefarious regime Iran arms, funds, and essentially controls, and to the west of Syria is Lebanon, which Iran has controlled through its Hizbullah proxy for decades.  Add that together and you have a large and powerful Persian empire whose depth and breadth we have not seen since the Sasanian empire of 621 CE.

This is an enemy which we should rightly fear, but we can only resist this enemy if we come together as one.  Vitriolic declarations that supporters of this deal hate the State of Israel and are somehow complicit in doing Hitler’s work, or pronouncements that people who reject the deal are warmongers, whose loyalties and patriotism should be called into question creates an environment too eerily similar to that which brought about our people’s destruction two thousand years ago.

We need to do everything in our power to ensure that support for Israel is not a Democratic objective, or a Republican objective, a liberal objective or a conservative objective but an American objective. Israel is America’s most important ally in one of the most dangerous parts of our world, and while there can be honest and civil disagreement between America and Israel’s leaders, we must reweave the fraying fabric that binds America and Israel together.

But even with the challenges we face as a people externally, I wonder if the challenges we face internally are not more profound. The same senseless hatred that threatened us in ancient times still tears us apart today.  What does it mean when the Minister for Religious Services of the Jewish State declares that we as Reform Jews cannot be considered Jewish?  What does it mean when an ultra-orthodox Jew stabs six people at Jerusalem’s gay pride parade, and the response by some in the Ultra-Orthodox community is, “that’s terrible, but…”  Can we blame young non-orthodox Jews for feeling alienated from Israel when Israel so publicly denigrates the Judaism they practice?

And here in our community, an ever growing number of Jewish men and women are abandoning the covenant.  More and more non-orthodox Jews are leaving Jews and Judaism behind, rapidly divesting themselves and their families of any sense of connection or commitment to Judaism, the Jewish community and the Jewish people.  Despite what our tradition has taught for centuries, we are using the extraordinary freedom American society affords us to walk away from the covenant of Israel.  Studies of non-orthodox Jews show that we practice fewer rituals, we ignore Shabbat, we worship less and less frequently, we belittle the value of Jewish education and condemn ourselves and our children to ignorance and illiteracy, we give less tzedakah to Jewish charitable causes, and we share a growing disillusionment and lack of connection to the State of Israel and our fellow Jews around the world.  Not only have we abandoned our covenant that links us together as Jews, we have abandoned any meaningful pursuit of Jewish spirituality.[6]

That apathy towards Jewish life we see in the massive majority of non-orthodox Jews has the potential to wipe us off the map as surely as any of our enemy’s armies.

We are drawn here today because we are part of a covenant, a covenant that not only binds us individually to God, but that binds us collectively one to another as Jews.  We must in this New Year come back together and recommit ourselves to the project of Judaism and the Jewish people.  On this Rosh HaShanah we let us heed the Shofar’s call to return.  Let us reject the politics of demonization and division, and come together to counter the existential threats we face as a people.  Let us come together to face the threats that are posed to us externally by our enemies and anti-Semitism, and let us come together to counter the threats that are posed to us internally by senseless hatred, divisiveness, and apathy.

Let us resolve to return to our covenant and recommit to investing ourselves in the richness of Jewish life.  Let us promise to be more engaged, more educated, more committed to actively seek the inspiration that Torah and tradition can ignite.

We turn to page 282 and we rise for the sounding of the Shofar.  And as we rise, let us rise up together to thwart those enemies that would seek our destruction, and rise up together against the senseless hatreds and apathy that threaten us from within. Let the sound of the shofar harken us back to Sinai, so that soon in our own day, we will find our people one with each other, and one with our God who is one.

[1] “The Quality of Mercy: On The Duty To Forgive in the Judaic Tradition” by Dr. Louis E. Newman in The Journal of Religious Ethics Vol. 15, No. 2 (Fall, 1987), pp. 155-172.

[2] Maimonides Hilchot Teshuva 2:9-10

[3] Yoma 9b

[4] Menachem Begin: The Battle For Israel’s Soul, by Daniel Gordis.  New York: Nextbook, 2014, chapter 7 pp. 79-97.

[5] Ben-Gurion: The Biography of an extraordinary man, by Robert St. John. Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1959, pp. 158-163.



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